Going gluten-free? If so, you probably know that this diet can be seriously unhealthy for your budget.
Time magazine calls gluten-free eating “an exceptionally pricey food fad.” After she went gluten-free, Arlington, Va., lawyer Jennifer Dillon told Reuters that her grocery bill rose by $40 a week for her family of four, to at least $130 a week.
However, as I learned after switching to a gluten-free diet 12 years ago, spending wads of money just isn’t necessary.
One study found that gluten-free products, on average, cost 242 percent more than their wheat-based counterparts. Other research finds they cost up to 518 percent more, Reuters says.
The demand for everything gluten-free has analysts at Packaged Facts predicting the industry will be worth $6.6 billion in 2017. Much of the higher price goes to cover the costs of certification, testing and maintaining separate processing plants, explains one producer.
Few people actually need to go gluten-free for health. For those who must, it’s literally a lifesaver. The University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center estimates 3 million Americans, or 3.5 percent of the population, have celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder causing digestive system damage from eating wheat, rye or barley.
Another small percentage of the population is thought to have less damaging conditions like gluten intolerance and wheat allergy. But does gluten harm everyone? Opinions vary. The Huffington Post debunks “myths” about a gluten-free diet, while others liken gluten to cigarettes.
Once you go gluten-free, there are ways to keep costs down. I’ve gleaned these tips from my experience and that of others, including gluten-free author-bloggers Annalise Roberts (The Food Philosopher) and Nicole Hunn (Gluten-Free on a Shoestring):
1. Accept it: Your world has changed
Gluten-free eating becomes easy when you accept that there’s really no substitute for wheat. Just let it go. Store-bought gluten-free baked goods aren’t just hellaciously expensive, they’re also:
- Disappointing. It’s crushing to spend $15 on a pie “that tastes like gravel,” says Roberts, author of several acclaimed gluten-free baking books. When I first encountered a gluten-free bakery I was like a traveler in the desert stumbling upon an oasis. I bought a scone, a muffin, cookies and a Danish. With each bite, my disappointment grew. Today, I mostly avoid baked goods that aren’t homemade. A few local artisan bakeries are setting the bar higher these days but “not bad” is still high praise for most store-bought gluten-free products.
- Fattening. Fat, sugar, eggs and salt are used to pump up the blandness of rice flour, a primary ingredient in baked goods.
- Quickly stale. These baked goods dry out much more quickly than wheat-based foods.
2. Embrace new habits
Stop trying to replace all the bread, bagels, muffins and cookies you used to eat. Make bread and cookies occasional treats. Eat burgers and sausages without a bun. Switch to open-faced sandwiches, lettuce wraps and crackers. Enjoy dips, hummus and peanut butter with vegetables and fruits. Cornbread (read the labels on mixes) is a quick, easy bread substitute.
3. Cut back on restaurants and takeout
Eating at home saves tons of money and reduces your chances of accidental gluten poisoning. I once got ill from a chicken dish the waitress had assured me contained no wheat. I later found out that she’d known the dish had flour but she hadn’t realized that flour (typically) is wheat.
4. Cook from scratch
Most rules for budget eating apply, with gluten or without. Cooking from scratch is one of those rules. It eliminates the premium on restaurant and takeout food. Author Mark Bittman’s soup tutorial is a thrifty, easy way to start (omit the croutons and bread). Our creamy polenta is another good starter dish. The Web and public libraries have loads of recipes and guidance.
Start gradually. Personal finance expert Donna Freeman advises cooking just twice a week at first, making the meals “big ones so you’ll have leftovers to carry to work.”
After a day – or maybe two — wrap fresh gluten-free baked goods tightly in plastic and foil and store in the freezer so they won’t dry out. Slice breads before freezing so you can thaw slices separately. Roberts told me in an interview that she microwaves frozen slices for six to eight seconds before popping them into the toaster.
Gluten-free flours have a short shelf life, so buy in small quantities or keep out enough for four or five months and freeze the rest.
6. Use whole ingredients
The biggest expense in a gluten-free diet is the cost of specially processed foods. Fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, eggs, beans, rice, quinoa and corn are naturally gluten-free, are healthier and cheaper than processed foods and help you avoid products with hidden gluten.
From Roberts’ “Gluten-Free Baking Classics” I’ve produced cakes, cookies, muffins and scones far better than store or bakery products and usually indistinguishable from wheat-based goodies. Oh, and they cost a fraction of store prices.
I haven’t tried much bread-making but with the right recipes it’s not difficult, Roberts says. Gluten-Free on a Shoestring shares top 10 secrets to bread-making.
8. Find your favorite flour blend
Most gluten-free baking requires a balance of several flours (grain, bean and legume), starches (potato, tapioca, corn and arrowroot), and gums (guar gum and xanthan gum). To bake bread you’ll use different blends (known as flour mixes) from those used for cakes and cookies.
Popular flour blends are made by King Arthur, Authentic Foods, Cup4Cup, Better Baking and Bob’s Red Mill. The Seattle Times tests a few in “Gluten-free smackdown: A taste test of 6 flours in muffins.”
While you can substitute rice flour for wheat in a few recipes, you won’t find a single flour or blend that works dependably as a “cup-for-cup” substitute for wheat flour, says Roberts. Hunn blogs here about the problem.
Each grain, each company’s milling techniques and each flour blend absorbs moisture differently, creating divergent results. Roberts says: Find a bread flour mix and pastry flour mix you like and stick with them for dependable results.
9. Make your own flour blends
Cut costs even further by blending your own flour mixes. It’s easy. (Really.) Hunn, author of the Gluten-Free on a Shoestring books, also tests and reviews commercial flour blends. She’s even developed formulas for replicating two commercial blends.
Roberts shares recipes for her homemade flour blends here.
10. Use GF-tested recipes
Use recipes developed for the flour blend you’re using, Roberts says. Milling companies offer plenty of tested recipes on their packaging and websites. When following recipes developed by cookbook authors or bloggers, use the flour blends they recommend.
I’ve splurged and spent $7 a couple of times on awesome gluten-free crackers (Raincoast Oat Crisps). But for daily consumption, I stock up on my favorite cheaper grocery store brands when I find low prices.
12. Use sales and coupons
My favorite crackers, Crunchmaster, Blue Diamond Nut Thins and Blue Diamond Artisan Nut Thins, are on sale frequently. I use grocery store coupons or download coupons from manufacturers’ sites to compound the savings.
13. Shun specialty stores
High-end grocers charge high prices and they excel at tempting shoppers into making pricey impulse buys. Budget shopping is simpler at a regular grocery store. Bring your list and stick to it. Here’s About.com’s celiac grocery list.
14. Avoid inside aisles
The perimeters of grocery stores are the places to find unadulterated whole foods (read labels – especially on processed meats). Aside from canned and frozen vegetables and fruit, inside aisles contain mostly expensive mixes, junk food and packaged products.
15. Raid your cupboards
Making meals with food in your pantry and fridge will keep you out of stores. Get inspiration and recipes at CookWithWhatYouHave.
16. Make stock
Save vegetable peels in an airtight bag in the freezer to make flavorful stocks to use in soups and other dishes. Here is Ina Garten’s (no gluten) chicken stock recipe.
17. Cook ahead
When cooking soups, stews and casseroles, make plenty, eat some and freeze the rest. Hunn’s “Gluten-Free on a Shoestring” suggests quick weekday meals using basics like the gluten-free pizza dough, pasta dough, stocks, and black beans she makes on weekends (the book has recipes). Once a month Hunn makes and freezes uncooked mac and cheese, cookie dough, potato gnocchi, biscuits and rolls.
18. Go online
About.com suggests comparing prices online. It helps you to know a good price when you see one in a store, and buying online may even be cheaper. (Remember to include shipping costs.)
19. Don’t buy for the whole family
Many gluten-free guides suggest taking your entire family gluten-free. That’s up to you, but if you do, limit the expensive store-bought gluten-free items to those family members who actually need them.
20. Collect favorite books and blogs
Going gluten-free is a bit research-intensive at first, but identifying your favorite sources for tips and recipes saves you time later.
21. Use your stale bread
With ingredients this expensive, you can’t afford to throw out food. Use stale bread and crackers and baking goods to make bread crumbs, croutons, strata, meat loaf and meatballs. About.com has more tips for using stale gluten-free bread.